We start always with politics, and this being Illinois those politics are always antic. We’re caught between peculiar fascination with our failed elected leaders, their perverse sheep colleagues and the shame of having elected and re-elected them – the leaders who don’t lead and the followers who follow anyhow.

Then we turn to money. Now it’s the state budget, underwater from past smoke and mirrors of the Blago era, compounded by the swift damage to revenues from this deep recession.

The debate rages: Pass an income tax hike by June 30 and save state programs, as imperfect as we know them to be. Stick with the already passed doomsday budget and see what genuine suffering looks like.

Maybe at this point, at this late date, we start to talk about people. Actual people who depend on the simple idea that society bands together to take care of those in trouble.

Friday morning, 17 people crowded into the Journal’s conference room. They represented a dozen of the social service agencies that stitch together the network of caring, problem solving, rescuing and redeeming that goes on, substrata, every day in Oak Park, River Forest, Austin and Forest Park.

These people know the people who are directly at risk if politics trumps moral purpose in the days ahead. They know what will happen to the sexually abused 4-year-olds, the working mom who loses her daycare, the beat-up wife, the elderly person still at home only because of special services, the person with mental illness seeking a steady hold.

And these good people are as scared as I’ve ever seen them. They’ve already got the certified letters from the state agencies telling them which programs are gone as of July 1, which ones will see their per diem reimbursement cut by 15 to 30 percent. I’ve got copies. Emergency Food and Shelter Program cut 27 percent. Circuit Breaker property tax relief for seniors cut 50 percent. Sheltered workshop programs, dental services, diagnostic and evaluation services, speech therapy, counseling services, respite care – all eliminated.

Foster parents, the people taking on the raising of the boys and girls our society has already done its worst to, have been told their monthly stipends are now half of an already inadequate amount. Yet, the three Hephzibah foster moms in our office last week talked more about the support services for their kids that are about to evaporate.

That’s the kind of people we have on the front line, the people we have long underpaid to make society’s failings largely invisible to the rest of us. And now we have a state budget that won’t pay them at all. Pending the late arrival of a backbone and a soul in the state legislature, come July 1 we’ll watch the great unraveling of an imperfect but essential system of care and protection, we’ll watch a state give up on hope that government can make things better.

In Oak Park and River Forest, our legislators have made the right votes so far. That is not nearly enough. Not nearly. It’s time for moral persuasion. Sen. Don Harmon has to move beyond well-regarded good guy and prove to be a force for good. It’s time for citizens to lobby as hard as the payday loan lobbyists who just screwed over poor people in Illinois yet again.

We’re about to define ourselves, folks. We’ve tolerated being a corrupt state. Will we allow Illinois to be cruel and inhumane, as well?

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...